Two Things Changed The Way President Obama Speaks to Black African Leaders
Donovan X. Ramsey, writing in News One, claims that President Obama has two approaches to two different Black audiences: for Black African leaders he is laudatory but toward Black Americans he lectures and is condescending. Actually, the complaint that President Obama is condescending to Black people, including Black Africans, was a concern that Black African leaders had for most of the first five years of his presidency.
The president didn’t seem to change his tone, toward Black African leaders until the White House got an earful from Africans about his condescending tone as the White House was attempting to organize his most recent tour of the continent in 2013; Black African leaders and intellectuals made it clear that they didn’t want to have a repeat of his paternalistic discourse, which characterized his 2009 tour.
The second thing that changed was that China, Turkey and India have gained ground and increased their investments in the continent while the rate of increase of U.S. investment and trade in the African continent has lagged. In addition to the administration’s drive to militarize the continent, with sharp increases in U.S. weapons and forces, there seems to be a sense that the White House will have to scramble in order to catch up with the economic grains of these other players.
There may be lessons for Black Americans in this; unlike Black Americans, Black Africans have been willing to criticize President Obama and call him out on his political opportunism. President Obama can safely take the Black American community for granted because the Black American community does not take itself seriously as having political and economic interests.
African Immigrants in America
One must, however, separate the different aspects of President Obama’s race discourse from the kinds of things that appeared in a recent opinion piece, by Gene Demby in “Code Switching” on National Public Radio’s (NPR) webpage. Demby’s piece focuses on first-generation Black immigrants in America and the notion of the “model minority”.
Increasingly, the African American community is composed of a recent immigrant population, whether from the African continent itself or from the Caribbean. In both cases, but especially in the case of recent immigrants from the African continent, these populations bring with them more traditional family and cultural values and more cohesive ties as communities. These cultural attributes are reflected in a higher per capita rate of business ownership than Americans in general, of any race, higher academic performance, and a higher degree of family stability.
The differences between communities of recent Black immigrants and Black Americans who have been here for 400 years have been used, by some, to blame the Black American community for its own failures and to divert attention from discussions about structural and systemic forces affecting Black Americans. Yet there is much that the Black American population can, and should, learn from recent Black immigrants about entrepreneurship, academic engagement and family values. Furthermore, the recent immigrants are transforming what it means to be “Black American”.
The Problem With the Way Obama Speaks to Black Americans
The problem with Obama’s discourse toward Black Americans is not that, from time to time, he tells the community that Black folks are going to have to help themselves; it is that he uses the same discourse, with highly-functioning populations within the community as one might use with “at-risk” populations. When you have an audience of recent graduates from Morehouse College, or boys from a high-performance prep school in Chicago, it makes no sense to lecture them about not making excuses, eschewing violence and assuming the responsibilities of fatherhood. Would he give a similar lecture to recent graduates of Exeter Academy or Harvard University?
The Future of Recent African Immigrants in America
Gene Demby says that in one or two generations the recent African immigrant population will look a lot like the so-called “underclass” within the Black American population, and we will share a continued collective sense of ongoing victimization. I don’t see that happening. Demby’s argument comes from a narrative of the permanence of American racism and White supremacy to a degree that there are very few opportunities for Black Americans to move ahead; but that has not been our historic experience. The more likely scenario is that the children of recent Black immigrants will be assimilated into the Black American middle class, and the American middle class in general, and will perpetuate and continue to transmit the cultural norms that will continue to make them competent and competitive within the American mainstream.
The Future of Racial Discourse in America
I think this will be a good thing; it will help us to shift the focus of our discussions about multiculturalism from “protecting” marginalized cultures that are ineffective in negotiating the mainstream to developing code-switching skills, which will enable those who are on the margins to work more effectively in political, economic and academic arenas. It will also be a good thing because it will enable us to shift from an exaggerated focus on “race” to a more complicated focus on class and cultural differences within and between different racial and ethnic groups and begin to work toward more meaningful solutions.